Thursday, 28 November 2013

Writing as a Vocation

My first son Michael is my extra-conscience, advising me softly when he sees me slipping off the rails. When I wrote him I was so eager to read an earlier colleague’s novel, he warned me that the book I had just booked from Göttingen University was not the novel, but a long rant on becoming a successful writer when you were chained to six classes a day at a junior college. What a delicious rant! I was back teaching high school and maneuvering to be an American Studies scholar. Talk about nostalgia’s warm embrace. 

Thank you, Jon Hassler, the late Regent’s Professor Emeritus at St. John’s University, Minnesota. Where, in fact my best pal at Michigan State for three years was none other than Stanley J. Idzerda, Dean of Humanities there. What stimulating company. “My Staggerford Journal” (Ballantine Books, 1999) is a diary of his wins and losses as he painted landscapes and taught English to become a successful writer. Joyce Carol Oates panned it in the New York Times. Gulp. But she has a rep as a nasty critic. Jon didn’t let this stop him dreaming and revising when he could squeeze time enough, as the college tuition of his daughter kept him chained to teaching!

The first episode I most thrilled to was a department meeting to change the way they were teaching GRAMMAR. Ugh. He moans to his pal Dick in this writer’s diary, July 31, “I am not, by and large, thought of as a curmudgeon, Dick. I am basically the same nice, patient, cooperative person you knew at St John’s. There are, however, certain times during the year (maybe five or six times) when the urge to be irascible takes me by surprise and with such force that I hardly think I can be responsible for what ensues. What ensues is probably not all that terrible, usually a nasty, cynical, ironical remark just funny enough to be forgiveable; but it is evidence of some fault or fissure in my psyche, and most likely—nay, destined—to occur during the five or six committees I attend each year. Committees (and that monster spawned by committees: the workshop) call up the worst in me. During workshops I am not only uncooperative, I am downright unmanageable.” 

Jon then describes how he has brought 290 pages of student writing, believing you learn grammar by expressing your ideas under observation. All the other “participants” had idiosyncratic impulses, not ideas. They got nowhere—unless turning the whole problem over to Jon is considered a solution! On their communal directive, they spelled it GRAMMER. Loose vowels, No?

My first chairmanship was as director of the East-West Center of the University of Hawaii. Our mission was to introduce Asian students to American ideals, and the Americans to Asian culture. The State Department gave the U the cash. Which I first learned when the unusually ignorant Ph.D. appointed my assistant without my knowledge had spent his career as a CIA operative! His task was to throw parties to see which students were dangerously Lefties! 

I won’t mention their reducing my salary when I arrived from $13,000 to 10,000, no questions allowed! I loved Hawaii, and wrote a book about it. And I created radio and TV weeklies where I was the host. I quit after a year, to return to Philly as an English chairman where we had recently bought a Louis Kahn house in a pioneer integrated Green Belt Knoll. I dumped chairmanship after eight years because I despised committees!

Jon is most thrilled when he’s visiting the homes of the likes of Emily Dickinson, Thoreau, Twain, and Hawthorne. The ignorant lack of preparation of the local guides shoots him into an air of contempt. It makes him value re-teaching those stars when the press hassle him about vacations. 

If you hanker becoming a writer, his wrestlings with new texts are very educational. I can hardly wait until I can read his “Staggerford” novel. Minnesota libraries are full of all his work. Weimar had never heard of them. They will soon, as I get busy with You’re a kick, Jon. I’d still be a teacher if my colleagues were as hip as your muse!

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